I was sick for more than a week when I was eight. I don’t remember the diagnosis. I only remember fever, racking waves of coughing, towels and pans for catching you-know-what and a vaporizer running constantly, infusing the sheets, my pajamas and stuffed animals, my books, the whole soggy, cough-filled room in a camphor haze of Vicks Vapor Rub.
And Doctor Doolittle. I can appreciate why the books have been pulled from many libraries for belittling images of Africans, but they were my companions in those fevered days. I read three or four at a time. In one, the good doctor and his entourage toured the undersea in a glass-bottomed Victorian sitting room inside a giant, graciously accommodating sea turtle. She was of a certain age and had saved a nice young couple who didn’t make it on Noah’s Arc. I believe she brought them to South America. To read a little and lie back on the faintly damp sheets and dream of touring the ocean bottom in a glass-bottomed turtle, taking tea and cakes with well-mannered animals—it wasn’t a bad way to spend the day.
Probably it was a nervous time for my parents, with two smaller children to tend and keep healthy, but aside from the pain of coughing and other GI upsets, I relished the comfort of being cared for. My mother brought me bananas mashed in milk, applesauce, soft-boiled eggs, often ice cream. Every evening, I’d hear my father come home from work and ask, first thing, “How is she?” and my mother saying, “The same.” Then he’d come upstairs, find a space to sit on my cot littered with stuffed animals and books and we’d talk or he’d watch me cough.
The sickness slackened and I was moved outside to a hammock for the sun to dry me out, as my mother said. Then back to school. But it was a soft and magic time, carved out of normal life like a sitting room in a glass-bottomed sea turtle.